From Reception to Restitution
In his 1925 essay The Gift, Marcel Mauss seeks to explain the exchange economies of archaic societies in terms of gifts given and gifts returned. Mauss approaches this through a study of the potlatch, a property-giving ritual practised by indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the USA. He uses his account to challenge contemporary views of the potlatch’s underlying structure, which was thought as an economic cycle, of debts entered into and debts repaid, at a legally binding “due date.” Instead Mauss describes the potlatch as having a gift structure, one of “presents made” and “presents repaid,” characterising it as a process of “exchanging gifts.”
Rather than a contract between donor and donee, with an inherent due-date, the gift/countergift as theorised by Mauss is a force immanent to the thing: “a mysterious force, the thing itself demands gift and restitution.” Time is central to this, the gift cannot be reciprocated immediately, a length of time, a term, a delay must elapse before its return.
Derrida’s analysis (pp. 36-40)
Derrida points out the incongruity of Mauss’s description, gifts cannot be exchanged “tit for tat,” as this leads to their annulment. Yet the gift as given and its restitution by its return, the phenomenon of the exchanged gift, is undeniable. The gift and its exchange are joined, they are in synthesis. For Derrida this paradox constitutes the “madness of the gift,” one which informs his thinking on the subject.
He says that the syn of synthesis, which means “together,” has “an essential relation to time,” in terms of a “certain deferral/differing in time.” (38) In Derrida’s eyes the delay of the gift, its term, as a word and as the length of time of delayed return, creates a differance.* This acts as a “guardrail”** against the madness of the gift, which to be a gift must remain foreign to the circle of exchange, yet is pulled into it through its restitution, the antithesis of the gift.
Thus the temporalised thing, that which is in a neutral and homogenised time, is transformed as a gift, “temporized” – made subject to the time of delay. Derrida says this force of delay is inscribed in/upon the given-exchanged thing, in terms of “limit and time.” The thing of the gift has its essence in this demand of the “gift-counter-gift.” For Mauss the delay, the term between the reception of the gift and its restitution, forms the “original essential feature of the gift.” (39) Thus the time of delay appears as intrinsic to the gift.
*A key term for Derrida, plays on the French différer, which means both “to defer” and “to differ.”
**”Guardrail” is the translation of garde-fou, which, when translated literally, means “crazy guard.”